ClassicsOnline Home » CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 12 (1902-1920)
Complete Recordings, Volume 12
Enrico Caruso was still only 47 when he made his last
recording. Less than a year later he was dead. For him there was to be no long,
slow deterioration of the voice, no painful subsiding into ordinariness. Countless
admirers were shocked and saddened by his early death, but the Caruso legend
has thrived on it, to the point where a unique aura now surrounds his
reputation. Great singers may come and go, but none will ever take over the
mantle of Caruso.
There is something here that goes beyond mere questions of
quality, something to do with his lowly origins in a disease-ridden Naples
where the poorest families (though not the Carusos) lived on the ground floors
of warehouses together with their livestock, and the women of the house swept
out the animal droppings and emptied the chamber pots into the gutter. Cows and
goats were driven through the streets to be milked on demand. Boys dived for
coins in the filthy waters of the port, into which the street sweepers dumped
the contents of their carts when they finished their rounds. Hygiene was
unknown and death was a familiar visitor. In such circumstances it is hardly
fanciful to suppose that transient beauties become more precious and life
affirms itself with a fiercer intensity.
Add to this the bars and restaurants echoing to the popular
songs of the day, a wonderful treasury of lyrics and melodies that sprang from
specifically Neapolitan roots and helped define the city’s particular identity.
Here was an education rather different from that offered in any conservatory of
music. Any tenor now can sing ’O sole mio or Torna a Surriento or Guardanno ’a
luna, but he can hardly say that he sat and joked with the men who wrote these
songs, or grew up speaking the dialect in which they were written – or, indeed,
that when he started out on his career in opera Verdi was still living. Caruso
is not just a singer, he illuminates a vanished musical landscape which
continues to captivate our imagination.
Even Caruso’s death had a heroic quality that went beyond
the sad procession of infections, operations, recoveries and relapses. A couple
of decades later, the whole business could have been easily cleared up with
antibiotics, but in 1921 a bacterial invasion of the pleural cavity was all too
likely to prove fatal. What sparked it off was probably an accident that
occurred on stage one night at the Met in early December 1920, during a
performance of Samson et Dalila, when one of the falling pillars (made out of
wire and basketwork) struck Caruso in the left side. In the days that followed
he complained of pains just below the kidney, and a week later sang the whole
of Act I of L’elisir d’amore while wiping the blood from his mouth onto a
succession of handkerchiefs passed to him from the wings. The rest of the
performance had to be cancelled. His doctor persisted in reassuring everyone
that the trouble was only a burst blood vessel at the base of the tongue, and
Caruso himself was reluctant to admit there was anything seriously wrong. The
trouble worsened. On Christmas Eve, during one of the intervals in La Juive,
the conductor visited his dressing-room and found him sitting in a chair
weeping with pain. It was the last time he ever appeared on stage. The next day
he was seized with such agonizing pain that, as he later wrote to his brother
Giovanni, his howls were ‘so loud they heard me on the street from the
An operation was carried out under local anaesthetic to
drain fluid and pus from the chest. Over the following weeks, more abscesses
formed, necessitating a further five operations: during one of these a
four-inch piece of rib had to be removed to gain access to the seat of the
infection. Over a period of three months Caruso lost an alarming proportion of his
215-pound weight, but though still weak and shaky and looking ten years older,
by April he seemed to be mending. During his illness he had often talked of
wanting to die in Italy, and against the wishes of his wife and doctors he
insisted on going through with plans for travel even when the danger was
apparently past. His party sailed for Italy on 28th May. For a month or more he
enjoyed the sun and air of Naples, his days a ceaseless round of visits from
friends, admirers and hangers-on. Whether the strain was too much for an
exhausted man, or whether the trouble came from an old operation wound which
had still not fully healed, he contracted a new infection, probably an abscess
close to the kidney. Preparations were made to transport him to Rome for surgery,
but the only part of the journey he managed to complete was the short distance
from Sorrento to Naples. He died there, in the Hotel Vesuvio, during the night
of 1st August, 1921.
What was left for Caruso to achieve? His career had been a
succession of triumphs and superlatives. The voice was stupendous, colossal,
glorious, rounded, mellifluous, it had thrilled and melted millions upon
millions of those who heard it, even through the crude medium of pre-electric
recordings. More to the point, its owner had endeared himself to all he met.
The public, of course, adored him, but from colleagues too came nothing but
affection and praise. The man knew his worth and expected to be duly paid for
it, but he also knew the worth of everyone around him, and would have scorned
to allow himself to be exalted at their expense.
What was left for him to record? Very little, as this disc
shows. A few rather unmemorable songs, Handel and Lully sung with funereal
reverence in the manner of the day; even one aria originally written for
soprano and here transposed down a ninth, Mia piccirella 4. Evidence, if any
more were needed, that Caruso really had done it all. Time to leave the stage:
let those who came after see if they could do any better.
In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical
Album Grammy Award for his production work on BMG’s Fritz Kreisler collection.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Marston’s name is ‘synonymous with tender
loving care to collectors of historical CDs’. Opera News calls his work
‘revelatory’, and Fanfare deems him ‘miraculous’. In 1996 Ward Marston received
the Gramophone award for Historical Vocal Recording of the Year, honouring his
production and engineering work on Romophone’s complete recordings of Lucrezia
Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mint’s Arturo
Toscanini issue and BMG’s Sergey Rachmaninov recordings, both winners of the
Best Historical Album Grammy.
Born blind in 1952, Ward Marston has amassed tens of
thousands of opera classical records over the past four decades. Following a
stint in radio while a student at Williams College, he became well-known as a
reissue producer in 1979, when he restored the earliest known stereo recording
made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932.
In the past, Ward Marston has produced records for a number
of major and specialist record companies. Now he is bringing his distinctive
sonic vision to bear on works released on the Naxos Historical label.
Ultimately his goal is to make the music he remasters sound as natural as
possible and true to life by ‘lifting the voices’ off his old 78 rpm
recordings. His aim is to promote the importance of preserving old recordings
and make available the works of great musicians who need to be heard.
This volume brings to a close our complete edition of
Caruso’s extant recordings. Critics have occasionally opined that these late
Caruso discs show the great tenor to be in vocal decline. It is certainly true
that by this time, Caruso’s voice had darkened considerably to an almost
baritone timbre, and perhaps his high notes had become slightly more effortful.
To my ears, however, it was Victor’s recording process that had declined and
would continue to do so until the end of the acoustic recording era. Listen,
for example, to the song ‘Noche feliz’ (track 9) to hear one of the more
egregious examples of this mechanical deficiency. Here, Caruso’s voice is loud
and penetrating yet it sounds edgy and disconcertingly unfocused. To make
matters even worse, two of these Caruso sides, ‘Première caresse’ and ‘Deh,
ch’io ritorni’ from L’Africana, were issued only as 78 rpm dubbings and the
original masters no longer exist.
These final recordings of Enrico Caruso are, even today,
extremely plentiful, and I have therefore had an abundance of copies from which
to make these transfers. I have primarily used Victor single and double faced
pressings, but in the case of the aria from La Juive, I chose a post-World War
II French HMV pressing which proved to be superior to any Victor specimens.
As an appendix, I have included a World War I military march
written by Caruso, and a popular song about Caruso, published in 1909. This
volume concludes with a new transfer of Caruso’s first recording from a
superior pressing. It happened that some months after the release of volume I
in this series, a mint first stamper pressing of ‘Studenti, udite’ from
Germania came to light. I decided, then, to share it with you, here at the end
of our journey with this most colossal of all tenors.